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An Interview with Catherine Mullins

Please tell us about your background. What made you fall in love with cinema? How did you become interested in filmmaking and what did you work on before making Saving Minds?

My love of film goes way back. From an early age, a favorite pass time was going to the movies, and at age 20, I had the good fortune of being hired by the National Film Board of Canada. It was the early 70s and the NFB was in its heyday. I had landed in a magical place where I could absorb the creative energy and knowledge that abounded while watching NFB documentaries. Eventually, I became a producer. I have always been very curious about people. I especially admire those who overcome obstacles. They are my personal heroes and I enjoy putting them in the limelight. In 2005 I made my directorial debut filming in Africa with children orphaned by AIDS. Their Brothers’ Keepers hit the mark and I followed it up with a second feature documentary, Being Innu. Filming with the Innu of Labrador and the children of Africa were two of the greatest experiences of my life.

Which filmmakers influenced you and your filmmaking? Which films, especially documentaries, have affected you the most?

I love the work of Werner Herzog, particularly Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams. His majestic voice and passionate storytelling style inspire me. I was influenced by many National Film Board filmmakers: Paul Cowan (The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss, Westray, and Anybody’s Son will Do); Albert Kish (Los Canadienses, Paper Wheat, and Notman’s World); Cynthia Scott (The Company of Strangers and Flamenco at 5:15). They are outstanding artists who have mastered structure and narrative.

What are the themes/issues you try to reflect in your films? What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film?

I am driven by a need to challenge narrowly defined social, cultural, and environmental beliefs. I have made films about the politics of the environment, equality for women, tribal thinking, poverty and redistribution of wealth, African children orphaned by Aids, Canada’s ill-treatment of its first people, and mental illness. Strong characters and creative storytelling are essential ingredients when making a documentary as is meticulous crafting. Building trust is of the greatest importance; it takes time and dedication to build trust between a director and the participants in her film. It is also important for a director to trust her or his instincts to guide the process.

Where did the idea for the film come from? What made you want to make a film about mental health care? Did the idea come from your everyday experiences of dealing with these issues?

This is my most personal film due to my son’s experience as a patient in the mental health system for the past twenty-five years. I have been my son’s advocate all these years and my research has been ongoing. Reading Anatomy of an Epidemic by award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker was a catalyst for this film because it gave me new information. After reading Anatomy, I knew I had to make this film. Interestingly, I released another documentary on mental illness in 2000 about the man who introduced antipsychotic (also known as neuroleptic) medication into North America. That film is entitled Untangling the Mind: The Legacy of Dr. Heinz Lehmann. Saving Minds brings my point-of-view full circle.

Where do you see the solution to problems in the mental health care system? How can your proposed empathetic approach (as opposed to the medical approach) can improve people’s mental health?

I believe that North America, the U.K., European and many other countries should do away with the DSM approach to treating mental illness that became dominant with the publication of the DSM3 in the 1980s. The system is flawed. We know this now. The system also sidelined the teachings of Freud, Jung, and followers which, in my opinion, took away the healing and caring aspects of treatment that patients crave from psychiatrists. More than often there are psychological causes to mental distress. We have minimized this factor in diagnosing and treating people and many lives have been ruined as a result. As for Canada, the country in which I live, I believe we should adopt an Open Dialogue approach to responding to mental illness which has a proven track-record thanks to Finland where it originated. We also urgently need Soteria-like homes where people can go when in crisis. The sufferers of mental illness do not want to go to hospitals because hospitals make them worse. We need political will but first we need an informed public. I hope Saving Minds will spark meaningful discussion that leaves “ordinary” people, families, and professionals in the field demanding change. I will be doing community outreach work and promoting this documentary over the next twelve months.

Please tell us about the production and your experiences of making Saving Minds. What are some of the challenges and difficulties you faced?

I was determined to give the lion’s share of screen time to people living with mental health challenges. I wanted them to tell their own stories. I also knew that speaking openly onscreen could potentially become too stressful, so I had to be careful about walking that fine line. On two occasions, I began filming with individuals for whom the process became difficult, and they withdrew. For a filmmaker with a finite number of shooting days, this can be a serious setback. I just reminded myself that their wellbeing mattered much more than any film. Tracking the stories of Alo and Myriam Anouk took more time than with previous film characters, and their “story arc” was not always obvious. I also knew from the beginning that their stories would raise many questions and that I needed to include experts in the film to say what I wanted the film to say. Structurally, this was not ideal but there are times when a filmmaker must simply keep the faith. In the end, we made it work.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with small budgets? Does it liberate the filmmaker or limit his or her freedom?

I make the kind of films that take time and require creative freedom. They do not fit into the mainstream mold. I depend on grants that are awarded to filmmakers who maintain creative control. The broadcasters that I work with respect this requirement. I also act as my own producer. I do this for financial reasons but also because I often need to make decisions on the fly. Producing and directing gave me twice the work but, in hindsight, I believe it was the right decision. Like many documentary filmmakers, I wore many hats on this production which allowed me to stretch my budget and favour the creative needs of the film.

Tell us about your festival run. Have film festivals provided you with the experience and exposure you needed?

My festival run was mainly during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the outset, I asked myself: Do I wait until after the pandemic or do I submit to festivals now? I decided to proceed because I wanted to get the film “out there”. I also wanted to be able to move on to the next phase of my distribution plan—that of community outreach—before too long. So far, I am happy with the way Saving Minds has competed on the festival circuit. It has been “officially selected” numerous times and has also won some lovely awards including this one from Fullshot Cine Mag for Best Feature Documentary. I am delighted with the attention received from three Italian festivals!

What was the reaction of those who watched your film? Was the feedback what you hoped for?

Feedback on Saving Minds has been gratifying. People say it held their attention from start to finish, that it was forward-thinking unlike so many other films on the subject, that they learned a lot about mental illness and were left feeling more empathetic. They also said Saving Minds stayed with them for a long time, and that I had put my finger on something important. When I hear such comments, I know I have achieved my goal.

Please tell us about your future project(s). What are you working on?

My next project will focus on becoming old. My mother lived in a residence for the elderly for fifteen years where I often visited. Her experience gave me first-hand knowledge of what happens when we shift into the ranks of the elderly. What struck me most was the loss of power. Why do we talk down to people who possess the wisdom we need? In a way, we unintentionally bully them because their minds are not as sharp as they used to be and because, physically, they cannot always keep up. On the flip side of the coin, I had the privilege of spending time among the Innu of Labrador and the Zambian people in Africa. What I observed in both those cultures was a deep respect for Elders. COVID has highlighted the shortcomings of eldercare, and this is important, but I see deeper problems. I have begun researching this new film. Once I have absorbed what I need to know, I will begin writing my vision of how I think things should be. I am turning 70 this year. It is the perfect age for taking on this film subject.


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